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Archive for August 21st, 2007

Putting readers to work, an interesting read

Tuesday, August 21st, 2007

An interesting read my managing editor pointed out to me last week, but which I forgot to post: To Save Themselves, US Newspapers Put Readers to Work

It’s a look at all the (insert city) mom’s, paws, etc. sites and the user generated comments, photo galleries and blogs proliferating the world of newspaper.coms right now.

I don’t think this is a bad trend at all. In fact, we’re planning to launch a site [crosses fingers] hopefully this week [/fingers crossed] where we do this at the high school level for one of our local schools using content about the school produced by, well, the kids who know it best.

Also, the local editor here is awesome at writing the call outs we feature prominently in our paper and in a prime position on our site when we’re working on stories where we’d like to, to use the “it word,” crowdsource our readers. (So awesome in fact that it’s kind of intimidating when one of us lowly reporters has to do this ourselves. My tactic has pretty much just been to emulate his style when I write them.) Our uses range from the worst intersections for feedback as we write about the county releasing its most dangerous list, to first day of school photos and anecdotes, to personal opinions on college rankings. Sometimes the call outs hit and the story chat takes off, and sometimes the response is lukewarm at best. But, our visitors can plainly see the most important aspect of the endeavor: We want to include them. Their opinions and experiences are not only important but valuable to us in telling the story.

Other than that, we have the salary and property tax databases, and we run photo galleries like there’s no tomorrow. Not to mention the phrase “Get me something for online” is so common place that even when it’s not verbalized, most of the reporters have it ingrained in their head.

I’m kind of at an advantage. I came in just after all the reorganization/while everything was still shaking out. So for me, I’m not encumbered by the way it’s always been or how it used to be. But I will say this, I don’t think most of my co-workers are either, including those who’ve been here for a long, long time. It seems like we’re all trying to do whatever we can to best tell the story of our community. And I can dig that.

Anyway, the article is an interesting look at what Gannett is up to and what could be up its sleeve next.

Embarassingly bad work… and what it’s taught me

Tuesday, August 21st, 2007

So, I probably shouldn’t perpetuate links to stories from my past that are less than stellar, but oh well. I will do so for the sake of showing those just starting out that everybody starts somewhere. And for myself, to remind me how far I actually have come.

Someone hit this blog by searching for “Meranda Watling” on Google. (I am still always curious about why random people search for me, but it’s one of those things I’ve come to accept.)

I’ve mentioned before what comes up on this search, but it’s been awhile since I Googled myself, so I clicked on the link in my counter to see if anything new or cool popped up. No such luck.

After the expected top hits — MerandaWrites, my LinkedIn profile, my ClaimID — comes the Stater stuff. Mainly, a list of my articles (though, not all of them as we switched hosts and systems half-way through my sophomore year and never moved the archives).

Now, let me start by saying, seven months into my first real job I have grown a lot, but I still have much, much, much more growing to do as a person and a reporter. I realize that, and anyone at this level of the game who doesn’t think they have much to learn is delusional.

I think, actually, that’s what makes reading my old Stater stories so humbling.

Even as I wince at my blunders in these, some of my first stories ever, the practical experience I now have keeps my brain thinking, “If I did this story today, I would …” And I think that’s great. It’s a sign I’m learning. I wonder what I’ll think three years from now of the way I covered the budgets this fall, my first time covering them, or next fall how I’ll feel about the round of first day of school stories I just did as I search desperately for more new angles.

Some of these stories are pretty horrible. Allow me to introduce the lead/first-five-graphs (the holy grail of whether a story flies or flops at the J&C) of one of the articles I wrote during RPA about the fire chief being a finalist for another job:

Kent Fire Chief Jim Williams has been named one of 10 finalists for the fire chief position in Delaware.

Delaware, located in Central Ohio north of Columbus, is among the fastest growing communities not only in Ohio, but in the nation. According to the U.S. Census, Delaware County was listed as the 12th-fastest growing county in the country between April 2000 and July 2005.

In the 2000 U.S. Census, the city of Delaware’s population increased 24.7 percent. In the same period, Kent’s population declined 3.3 percent.

The growing nature of the area is exactly what attracted Williams to apply for the position, he said.

“It’s an opportunity in a growing community,” Williams said. “The department’s a little larger than ours … but it’s a pretty similar department.”

The fact that it was in Ohio also impacted his decision to apply because he said he’d like to stay in the pension system here.

I mean what?! It reads like a Wikipedia entry. I don’t get into the context — that the chief’s been in the job a decade and at the department for another 17 years beyond that — or anything else until I’ve already lost my readers to boredom and confusion (Delaware? They only have on chief for the whole state? huh? Oh, it’s a city in Ohio. Now I get you.) from which they never recover.

To be sure, not all of those stories were horrible. Although this one about a bridge being closed (as far as I know this bridge is STILL closed a year and a half later) and the impact it’s had on the area citizens could stand to be cut, I do like the lead:

Jim Wyle was excited recently when he saw railroad workers on the tracks near the Middlebury Road bridge. Thinking they were there to work on the bridge, he started a conversation.

But the workers were only working on the tracks. In fact, they complained to Wyle, who has lived near the bridge for 15 years, that they had to go all the way around because the bridge was closed.

Wyle’s response?

“How would you like to live here and do that every day?” he asked.

Nearly 80 Kent residents met yesterday afternoon at the Kent American Legion to discuss the problems and delays with the Middlebury bridge and the possible legal action they could take.

The Middlebury bridge, which links the residents to Cuyahoga Falls, Akron and the other side of the city, has been closed because of safety concerns since March 2003, said Gene Roberts, service director for the city of Kent.

OK, so I cheated, that was six graphs. But they weren’t as long and it flowed much smoother. The anecdote really got to the point of the story.

Ironically, I wrote both those stories within a week of each other. I guess that shows, it was hit or miss. In a lot of ways, it still is.

Even now, I have days where I really like the stories I write or interviews that go particularly well. Then, I have others where I feel that nothing I do is any good and I should just scrap it and start over or give up. Sometimes, I even feel that way about different stories running in the same issue. But ah las, I can’t do that.

The beauty of newspaper reporting is that every day you are essentially handed a blank canvas. It’s up to you to figure out how you’re going to paint and fill it that day. And sometimes, when you’re done, you are really happy with the outcome. And other times, when you’re done, you can’t wait for the next day to end so you can forget all about that canvas and start again fresh.

Not everything I produce is going to be great. Although it kills me, I have come to accept that sometimes I’ll miss the mark. Those are the days I hustle to leave before my story’s edited and when I hesitate to open the daily readme memo from our editors to see just how far off I was and whether they noticed.

But you know what? Those are the stories that teach me the most. They’re the ones I come back to as I grow and say, “OK, knowing what I know now, how would I approach this differently?” Then, the next time sometime like that comes along, I know better and my work is better. Give me a few years to get a few “could have been better” stories out of the way. I’ll be a more humble and effective reporter for it.